Saving your soul: The act of exorcism

The current pope giving the nod to the International Association of Exorcists is an acknowledgement of a belief in the constant battles between God and the devil, which can take place in the human body, according to Associate Professor Sarah Ferber. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER

The current pope giving the nod to the International Association of Exorcists is an acknowledgement of a belief in the constant battles between God and the devil, which can take place in the human body, according to Associate Professor Sarah Ferber. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER

Source: ILLAWARRA MERCURY

Often thought of as nothing more than a plot device in movies, the act of exorcism is being taken seriously by the Catholic Church. JOSHUA BUTLER reports.

"Belief in the devil is at the heart of Christian tradition," says Sarah Ferber, associate professor of history at the University of Wollongong.

Journalism is a business rooted in reality. Numbers, quotes, facts and figures - things that can be verified, quantified, analysed and checked. Journalism is about concrete proof and detail, which makes spending a day talking about God and the devil, heaven and hell, demonic possession and exorcists living right here in Wollongong, quite a departure from the norm.

On June 13, the Vatican's Congregation for Clergy signed a formal decree approving the statutes of the International Association of Exorcists, a 250-strong group of Catholic priests who actively practise and promote exorcism - the casting out of demons from the human body.

This marks the first time the group - founded in 1991 by controversial Italian priest Father Gabriele Amorth, who claims to have conducted 160,000 exorcisms - has been officially recognised by the Vatican.

"Exorcism is on the way back, and has been for about 40 years. It isn't an exotic or primitive act.''

While exorcism may today be seen more as a plot device in movies or the root of scary campfire stories, the endorsement of the International Association of Exorcists has been seen by theologians, academics and the clergy as a move towards re-emphasising the place of exorcism and demons in the Catholic Church.

"Exorcism is real in that it is a religious act," says Prof Ferber, a leading expert in the history of exorcism.

"The current Pope giving an official canonical nod to the group is an acknowledgement that many Catholics and clergy strongly believe the world is subject to constant battles between God and the devil, and that the battle can take place in a human body."

Pope Francis in St Peter's Square at the Vatican. Picture: AP

Pope Francis in St Peter's Square at the Vatican. Picture: AP

In May 2013, Pope Francis himself was believed to have performed an exorcism in St Peter's Square, appearing to pray over a Mexican man who claimed to have been possessed by demons.

"Exorcism is on the way back, and has been for about 40 years. It isn't an exotic or primitive act," Prof Ferber says.

She says exorcism is about "detection or diagnosis of a demon" in a human body, which can include lesser demons or Satan himself. The actual act of exorcism is complicated and controversial, and Prof Ferber says it has directly or indirectly led to 30 deaths in the last three decades, including a woman in rural Victoria in 1993 and a child in Sydney in 1999 - both were carried out by family members who believed they were possessed by demons.

"It is said a devil enters the body of a human and controls their actions," she says. "That is one of the reasons a lot of people have died because of exorcisms - because people believed they were actually attacking a demon, not an actual human being."

The prevailing pop culture images of demonic possession are movies including The Omen, Rosemary's Baby and most obviously, The Exorcist. The 1973 film is based on a 1971 book of the same name, said to have been inspired by the reported exorcism of an American boy in the 1940s. The movie's depiction of a head-spinning, projectile-vomiting, possessed child are iconic film tropes, but Prof Ferber says the classic horror movie moments do not stray too far from some reports of real-life exorcisms.

Professor Sarah Ferber says the classic horror movie moments such as those in The Exorcist do not stray too far from some reports of real-life exorcisms.

Professor Sarah Ferber says the classic horror movie moments such as those in The Exorcist do not stray too far from some reports of real-life exorcisms.

"Within this belief system, devils can have license to torment humans in quite extreme ways, including ways depicted in The Exorcist," she says.

"One of the signs of possession is the ability to speak languages a person doesn't know, super-human strength, and revulsion at religious objects."

Methods to cast out the demon can range from simple prayers or commands for the spirit to leave, to invoking the sign of the cross or other holy objects, to complicated Catholic rituals.

Prof Ferber says every Catholic diocese is required to have a priest trained in exorcism - a claim Bishop Peter Ingham, of the Catholic diocese of Wollongong, confirms.

"There are basic prayers any priest can say over anybody, but if it's a special case, I have a priest who I have delegated to see them and look into them," Bishop Ingham says.

He confirmed Wollongong has at least one priest trained in exorcism rites, but would not share the name of this priest.

"It is rather rare people need to have an exorcism. There are sometimes the extreme cases you might see in the movies, but usually it is a person who feels there is some evil influence on them and a simple prayer or blessing can help relieve them of that," Bishop Ingham says.

 “I have no doubt there is an evil spirit, that Satan the devil exists,”  says Wollongong Catholic Bishop Peter Ingham. Picture: ADAM McLEAN

“I have no doubt there is an evil spirit, that Satan the devil exists,” says Wollongong Catholic Bishop Peter Ingham. Picture: ADAM McLEAN

"It has always been available."

Training as an exorcist is a multi-faceted exercise. Not just tutoring in Catholic rites, rituals, laws and lore, aspiring exorcists are given knowledge of a better recognised form of academia - psychology and psychiatry.

Both Prof Ferber and Bishop Ingham say exorcists are given direction in recognising whether someone claiming to be afflicted by demons is actually struggling with a mental illness or psychological condition.

"All priests considering performing an exorcism are required to get a psychological evaluation to know the person isn't suffering from a psychological illness. There are rules in the church to make it essential for priests to be cautious before moving to an exorcism," Prof Ferber says.

"All priests who carry out exorcisms have to carry out special training, particularly around mental illness."

Bishop Ingham says his priest had regularly attended seminars and training about exorcism.

"The seminars are about eliminating other possibilities first. You don't automatically assume the person is possessed, but by process of elimination, you might get there. It's about being rational and looking for other explanations, and only when there are no other explanations, then you assume it could be something supernatural happening."

Bishop Ingham says he has never heard of what he called a "major exorcism" in Wollongong since he was appointed head of the diocese in July 2001 - he had only heard of "minor exorcisms," the blessing of homes or bodies, which he says are carried out quite regularly.

"Many people are given blessings on themselves or their house, because they feel they want some protection from some presence there," Bishop Ingham says.

The bishop recalls an incident early in his priesthood where he claims to have personally felt an evil presence. While declining to give specific details of place or time, he was called to the home of a woman whose partner was reportedly possessed.

"The woman's friends were very disturbed because their friend's boyfriend had an evil spirit in him. I went to the house and prayed with these women, and they were trembling," Bishop Ingham says.

"They were really disturbed by this sense of evil. I didn't see the boyfriend, but you could sense there was some evil influence in that place. That's the most palpable experience in my 50 years in the church of what we're talking about."

"That was many years ago," Bishop Ingham says, sounding as if it had been some time since he had thought about his experience with those women.

Prof Ferber says the endorsement of the International Association of Exorcists is a sign from the Vatican that exorcism is again becoming an important part of the Catholic faith.

"It is the next development of something that has been happening under the last three popes," she says.

"It has traditionally been a divisive part of the church, and there is no reason to think it won't remain divisive. For every priest who says they are doing exorcisms as a method of pastoral care, there is another who says there are better ways of taking care of people."

Bishop Ingham is cagey about whether he supports exorcisms, but is more straightforward in supporting the presence of evil.

"I have no doubt there is an evil spirit, that Satan the devil exists," he says.

"People are doing terrible things to each other, there are violence and difficulties happening around the world."

"There is a spirit of evil that can take people over."

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